The woman was dead, crushed by a pile of rubble from the pelvis down. Beside her was her young son, whose leg was caught underneath the same rubble — but he was alive.
The class of aspiring firefighters stood in silence as Ron Johansen told the story of the rescue team during the 1989 earthquake. You could hear a pin drop when he told of how the firefighter from the Livermore Fire Department, forced to make a judgment call, had to chop the woman in half with a chainsaw to get to the boy. They then pulled her top half out and put down a tarp so they could crawl over her remains.
When they got there, they used a chainsaw to amputate the boy’s leg and pull him free. Because of their decision, he lived to see another day.
It is that type of real-life situation that the students in the fire technology service program at Las Positas College are being trained to combat.
Las Positas College is one of 62 California community colleges that provide a vocational training program for those headed towards a career in firefighting. With the standards in California exceeding those of the rest of the nation, the program teaches its students not only hands-on experience with firefighting, first responder operations and emergency decon, but also values of integrity, morals and character building, all of which are required to become a successful career firefighter.
“We are in the business of giving people a second chance. That’s what we’re in the business for,” head of the program Ron Johansen said. “A second chance at life to survive an event that they may not have survived if it hadn’t been for us. That’s what all this training is about, to give you the skill sets and the knowledge to make the right decisions, to not run or walk away, but to walk towards and be able to make a difference.”
Ron Johansen began to cultivate LPC’s fire technology service program in 1984 a mere two months after graduating from the program. He is currently an arson investigator with the San Francisco Fire Department and has been employed there for several years, yet he has never had an interest in becoming a fire chief, the head of the department. His passion is in teaching, and it is beginning to show results.
“Our program has begun to develop the reputation of being one of the better programs in the state and in the Bay Area,” Johansen said.
It is one thing to say that the program is ranked high in the state of California. Because career firefighting in California is considered a step above career firefighting in the rest of the nation, however, its ranking is actually higher than one may think. The majority of the reasoning behind this lies not only with the standards of California fire departments, but also with the actual foundation of fire service in the United States. It all began in the state.
“California has created training tracks and education programs and certification processes and accreditation processes that exceed NFPA (national fire protection association) standards,” Johansen said. “We consider those to be minimum national standards, so we exceed them.”
The differences in standards can be seen when looking to what is required for employment at in state and out of state departments. One such student Johansen described began his career at Lexington Fire Department in Kentucky on May 6 after being in LPC’s program for only one year. At that particular department, the levels of competition he faced were with the locals. Most of them only met the basic requirements, which are that the individual has to be at least 18 years of age, have a driver’s license and proof of citizenship.
The LPC student, on the other hand, had an emergency medical technician certificate, an emergency medical responder certificate, CPR training, hazmat training, emergency decon training, ICS (Incident Command System) training and NIMS (National Incident Management System) training — all with only a couple semesters of training.
This is not a singular situation. In California, the average fire department looks for candidates that have all the training listed above plus EMT and paramedic training, wild land and structure training and a completed fire academy. Top notch candidates will additionally have both volunteer and community service on their resumes, as well as either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in fire service. The amount of training involved can take up to four or five years for the average student.
Because of the size and quality of the job market in California, competitiveness is at its highest level. The Los Angeles Fire Department, which is actively hiring, has 13,000 applicants and only 150 open positions. The San Francisco Fire Department hired three years ago and had 16,000 applicants, and out of that number only 50 were hired.
“About 80 percent of those numbers have little to no understanding of what it takes to become a firefighter and will never seek the level of education and/or training or develop the type of resume that will allow them to become truly competitive for opportunities of employment in the fire service,” Johansen said.
At LPC, students are given maximum training opportunities for maximum employment opportunities. After four or five years in the program, students will walk away with a certificate of achievement in fire science technology, along with an associate’s degree in fire science technology. They will have completed a year and a half in the paramedic program. They will have both a structure academy and a wild land academy certification, as well as emergency medical technician and emergency medical responder certifications. They will also have a host of other specialty certifications such as hazardous material (hazmat), first responder operations and emergency decon.
Many students will also have experience as volunteer firefighters in the area, and numerous community service hours to put on their resume. Some will have spent time working on an ambulance.
According to Johansen, the success rate for finding employment in California after these completions is high. For example, nine students who had completed the entire program at LPC found career firefighting jobs within two to three years after graduation. Seven of the jobs were in state.
Some students advance at a more accelerated rate than others. When asked which student best displayed the qualities the instructors of the fire technology service program taught at LPC, Johansen did not hesitate to answer.
“This student is really pushing other students to be successful,” Johansen said. “He is volunteering with so many different organizations. He’s everywhere — Brandon Backman. He’s a veteran. He’s very aggressive in building the type of resume that shows community service and volunteerism as well as a focus on education and skills development and specialties outside the campus, as well as seeking opportunities of employment. He’s progressing at a very accelerated rate.”
A crash and salvage firefighter in the military from 2006 to 2011 and previous student at Fresno State University, Backman will be entering the paramedic program in the fall after having completed the fire technology service program in a year and a half. He is currently in the interviewing process for one of six open positions in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is one of 46 remaining applicants.
There are several parts to the interviewing process. First is the application itself, which can be tossed aside for even a minor spelling error. Next is the testing and EMT/paramedic assessments. The first interview comes next, which involves a physical agility test. The next step is the second panel, in which community service hours are reviewed. Backman averages at 1,000 hours. Finally is the chief’s interview, where Backman is. The academy follows for a period of three to six months, and then a probationary period of 12 to 24 months. If the chemistry is right and the individual is up to task with the fire department’s standards, then a full time career firefighter job is in the waiting.
“Mr. Backman is the person you need to start emulating,” Johansen told the entry level class of the program on a field trip to the City of Pleasanton Fire Training Center on May 4. “He’s serious about a career in firefighting.”
Part of Backman’s serious demeanor can be attributed to his past as a firefighter in the military. Discipline and respect is already part of what makes him a successful student in the program.
“I was a firefighter in the military. Getting out of the military — having that prior experience — it actually transitioned me to be a firefighter out here,” Backman said. “The firehouses use a military structure. It’s a ranking process, so you go to your superior and then they go to their superior. It’s the same concept so having that type of background was actually going to work for us going into the firehouse.”
But Backman is not the only military veteran in the program. Out of the 250 students, two dozen have a military background.
“I’ve seen trucks blow up in front of me numerous times,” LPC student and military veteran David Edward said. “I was a Calvary scout in the military from July 2006 to the beginning of this year. I just started the program.”
That background is not just found in the students, but in the instructors as well. One instructor, in particular, brings the “culture of the military” to the program, as Johansen phrased it.
“(Lieutenant George) Freelen brings to our students the level of discipline, focus to personal attention to detail, structure and ability to focus and raises the bar with what we call developing leadership skills,” Johansen said. “We place a huge emphasis in this program on developing individuals, not just from an academic standpoint, not just from a technical standpoint. We place a huge emphasis on the individual and their personality traits. Their work ethic, their values, their morals, their character, their sense of worth and self-reliance. We work on those things.”
A graduate of the LPC fire technology service program, Freelen now works at the City of Oakland Fire Department and trains the students at LPC for careers in firefighting. As a previous airborne ranger in the U.S. army, he has the understanding and knowledge of what it takes to be a firefighter.
“You do things that at the time you didn’t think you can do,” Freelen told the entry level class at the training center. “It’s the other side. It’s the good side. It’s the side that makes the difference, the side that you keep close to your heart. It gives you the strength to get up the next day and get on the rig, even though at the time you saw something that you didn’t think you’d be able to get through.”
Standing amid the piles of wrecked cars and collapsed concrete blocks at the training center, which simulate the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, it is not easy to believe his words. Looking at the dummy victim trapped beneath a cement pillar waiting to be rescued by a trainee firefighter, the words become more believable.
The purpose of training becomes vital when students turn into firefighters and are involved in real life situations. At the City of Pleasanton Fire Training Center, which the entry level class of the program visited on May 4, the students are given the opportunities to be in simulated situations where they will have to use the skill sets learned in the program to make it to the top of a smoke filled tower, or vent the roof of a ‘burning’ structure, or rescue a ‘victim’ from a confined space underground.
And it’s not just for students. For firefighters not involved in structure fires, training at facilities such as the one in Pleasanton is required once a year.
“The hope is that you don’t get killed in the real world,” Freelen said. “We make our mistakes here, in this class and in the tower, so that when you’re in somebody’s home, you don’t get hurt. Firefighting…we kill a hundred people a year in this country. It’s the highest in the free world, even with all the technology. It’s just a dangerous job by itself so the more training you can do, the more realistic, the better.”
Training does not just happen at off campus facilities, however. Students also train on campus in various classes such as emergency medical responding and P.E. that tests physical agility.
For the latter, the students are required to take both a written and a physical final. The physical final, called the KPAT, took place on May 13 in 100 degree weather next to the fire service buildings on campus. Composed of 14 events, the KPAT trains students to pass any physical agility test in the Bay Area. These events include transportation of dummy victims, climbing walls, ladder extension and dragging and rolling dry hoses across the pavement. They are graded on their success in each individual event, as well as on timing.
“I want them to push themselves 10 percent past what they think they can do,” Freelen said. “I want them to give 100 percent.”
It is easy to determine the atmosphere of the program from observing the students taking the KPAT. They are a family. They cheer each other on and groan in frustration when someone has difficulty with an event. As student Evan Hadley struggled in the event where he had to climb over the wall, Freelen shouted encouragement from the other side. And even though he is their superior, it is clear that all treat each other with the same level of respect. No sentence was said without a ‘sir’ or a ‘miss’ tacked onto the end.
The end of the semester does not mean the beginning of summer vacation for those in the fire technology service program. The opportunities to hone and exercise those skills will begin this summer as the students face live burns and more training techniques in the wild land academy. They will also continue to build character, integrity and respect for their classmates and their superiors.
“We want our students to be successful in life, not just successful as firefighters,” Johansen said. “Taking responsibility for your actions, having a high quality work ethic…and recognizing that the most important impression we leave on life is the impressions we leave on others and how we are viewed upon by others. Are we someone they look up to?
“We use one most important word in this program: integrity. It means doing the right thing all the time, every time, even when it doesn’t benefit us. That’s what we want to instill in our students.”